Woods storming to fore of golf's great pantheon

The burning question at St Andrews this week is: just how good can a golfer get? We are talking here about Tiger Woods, whose attainments at just 24 years of age make him almost unbackable for The Open Championship and suggest that even Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major titles (made all the more remarkable by 19 second-place finishes) is at his mercy.

The burning question at St Andrews this week is: just how good can a golfer get? We are talking here about Tiger Woods, whose attainments at just 24 years of age make him almost unbackable for The Open Championship and suggest that even Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major titles (made all the more remarkable by 19 second-place finishes) is at his mercy.

It remains to be seen whether Woods can fulfil the strident prophecy that only a malignant turn in the weather or flawed putting can prevent him from overwhelming the Old Course, but where does he stand in the pantheon of champions, including Sam Snead who, at 88, turned out yesterday in a four-hole ceremonial?

If hypothetical comparison is inevitable, it can be irritating. Take Nicklaus who was asked earlier this week to measure himself against Woods when at the height of his powers. Not once, but over and over. "I must have heard the question 15 times today alone," he said. Thus Nicklaus sensibly declares that Woods is a great golfer with the potential to be the greatest ever.

The most striking thing to me about this sort of turmoil in all areas of sporting endeavour is how stubbornly the past resists the present. As tenacious as ever is the view that modern sports feats have to be assessed in the context of scientific advancement. Given the advantages they enjoy (and this applies especially to golf), who is to say that modern games players are superior to their predecessors?

Recently, on television, there was a heartening example of how easy it is to fall into the trap of instant conclusions about sport, commonly the fault of a younger generation. When it was put to a notable former international that the pace of modern football would be a daunting prospect for players of his time he raised the issue of ability. "Sure the game is quicker," he said, "players today are generally better athletes, but shouldn't the question be how many of them would have been skilful enough to get a game 30 years ago?"

On the face of it, you might suppose that nothing is more predictable in past sports heroes than a bilious appraisal of their success, particularly when coming up against arbitrary assessment.

Nicklaus's feats in golf, as with Don Bradman's in cricket, speak for themselves and may never be surpassed. However, greatness is not defined solely by statistics, nor is it always clear in performance.

One of the reports put out last week after Lennox Lewis flattened Frans Botha in the second round at London Arena asked us to believe that no greater champion has represented the heavyweight division. This could quickly be dismissed as an example of loose thinking on the author's part (I hear the voice of Muhammad Ali out there), but then no one has ever denied this dubious trade has a talent for exaggerated conclusion.

Anyway, the ringing announcement of Tiger Woods on the first tee at St Andrews today will be heard by many as the prelude to victory on a course that appears ideally suited to his power and imagination.

Those who have reluctantly decided that this is the probable outcome hold nothing against Woods. It is the vision of a dominating force in golf that troubles them.

They are forgetting about Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and before them, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson. They are forgetting that history has a way of standing up for itself and the vagaries of fortune are always with us.

Had Woods risked all in the final round of The Open at Carnoustie last year instead of moving conservatively over the front nine, he would probably have won. But even if he wins this week, who will be able to argue convincingly that he is the best there has ever been?

For Woods' contemporaries, however, there is the frightening prospect of his continuing improvement. People who state that he is only two-thirds of the way to maximum potential are not guessing. They see it in his game, in his eyes, in his demeanour. You have only to ponder this for a moment to infer what he implies; a player with a grip on the game so vice-like that history may have to stand aside. Nicklaus too.

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